Sheppard was seated at the bridge’s tiny science station. They had sensors back online, but there was nothing of interest out their in the blackness. The helm console had been locked on a fixed course: directly to Epsilon Indi station at a rate of speed that was far above the ship’s safety thresholds. At warp 9, they would be in the system in less than twenty minutes.
“Maybe he’s summoning us because the captain is negotiating with him,” Sheppard wondered.
“I don’t think she’s very likely to negotiate with terrorists, Doctor,” Ohala remind him. He was under the communications panel with half of its isolinear chips arrayed on the deck around him. Communications were completely offline and between the Bolian and Lancaster, they hadn’t been able to determine how to restore them.
A few moments later, Lancaster and Evandrion entered the bridge with grim looks on their face. “The rest of the ultritium in the cargo hold has been rigged to detonate. It’s on a timer,” Lancaster said, crossing his arms. A wave of fear washed over Sheppard in a way that he hadn’t felt in his entire career.
“Can you disarm it, Evandrion?”
The Deltan shook his head. “Not with the equipment we have here. A medical tricorder’s not going cut it,” he said.
“Is there any way of stopping the ship, at least?”
“Not in the time we have. The ship is practically flying itself apart to maintain these speeds, but even with the power transfer conduits stressed to their breaking point, Pressman took our phasers and we don’t have anything else that could cut through them to sever flow to the nacelles or to break through the forcefield into Engineering,” Lancaster replied.
It was probably useless sugesting options to him, as of the four of them, he was absolutely the expert in starship operations.
“Can we get it off of the ship?”
“Transporters are offline.”
“Well… there has to be an external hatch in the hold, right? Can’t we just open it?” Sheppard wondered.
That question made Lancaster pause on his way to the helm console. “The hatch is sealed, but it’s standard Federation practice to build in break-away panels into cargo vessels to jettison dangerous cargo,” he noted, pulling up the ship’s schematics. After a moment, the display rotated to the underside of the ship to show four explosive bolts situated in the corners of the cargo hold. If activated, they would detach the floor of the bay and expel the cargo into space.
“How would we activate them, though? Internal systems control is still restricted,” Ohala pointed out. This time when Lancaster cast him a glance, it wasn’t sharp, it was resigned.
“Bolts like that have a hard link to a manual control lever. It can’t be disabled, for situations exactly like this one,” Lancaster replied.
“Let’s go pull it, then!” Sheppard enthused, hopping up.
“It’s inside the cargo bay. There’s not a containment field generator on that side of the bay, either.”
Sheppard’s heart dropped. That meant that one of them would need to be inside depressurizing cargo bay while at warp, which was one of the most dangerous environments an organic body could find themselves in. He also knew exactly which one of them would be the one to pull the lever.
“Lieutenant Evandrion, you’re in command. I need a pressure suit,” Lancaster said, turning on his heel and walking off of the bridge. Sheppard raced after him, Evandrion’s response lost in the blur of his realization that Lancaster really was going to do this himself. There was always the danger that either one of them could be ordered into a situation where they could die in the line of duty, but Sheppard wasn’t ready for that, not with the conversation they had just had still raw in his mind, and certainly not if there were literally any other choice to be made.
“Michael, there has to be another way,” he pleaded.
Lancaster ignored him, as he opened an emergency locker by the main airlock and broke the safety seal on an emergency pressure suit. Lightweight and one-size fits all, it barely looked sturdier than a hazmat suit, or even a bee-keeping suit, for that matter. It was meant to protect a Humanoid lifeform on the surface of a low-pressure environment planet or one where the atmosphere wasn’t entirely breathable. They could also be used for minor pressure loss within the ship, but the packaged, disposable suits were no substitute for an EV suit. They were just from getting you out of a damaged compartment and into a safe one.
“You know those aren’t meant for EVAs,” Sheppard said.
“There’s a strap and a duranium hook. It’ll keep me inside the ship,” Lancaster replied, heading to the vertical access shaft.
“Assuming the strap doesn’t break from the force, you’ll only have twenty minutes at most in a hard vacuum before all kinds of nasty things will start happening to your body, Michael.” Sheppard’s heart was racing as he followed Lancaster down the shaft to the lowest deck of the ship. The cargo bay doors opened ,and Lancaster stopped to survey the room.
“There’s no alternative, Shep. Even if one of the other two were up for this, I am the most qualified engineer on the ship. I can’t risk the safety of an entire starbase, not if I have the chance to stop this bomb,” Lancaster said. He grabbed both of Sheppard’s hands. “We talked about this. I… I have to do my job, even if it’s hard for you.”
“I could knock you out right now. Take the suit. Do it myself. Fuck the court-martial,” Sheppard said, adrenaline fueling a level of false bravado. He did know that he was the only person in the fleet who could get away with talking to Michael Lancaster like that, though he knew that it didn’t stand much of a chance of actually stopping him, now that his mind had been made up.
Lancaster shook his head. “I’m pretty sure you could knock me out if you wanted to, but you don’t know how to prime explosive bolts or locate the release,” he said, with a soft smile; ignoring the aggressive tone Sheppard had taken. “I love you.”
Sheppard nodded. “I love you, too,” he said, before kissing him. He wanted to linger, but time was of the essence. He reluctantly stepped back and looked Lancaster up and down. “Keep an open comm link. I’m going to be right on the other side of the door,” he said, as the other man slipped the lightweight suit over his uniform; it looked impossibly thin, even for being made of some Federation miracle material.
Lancaster nodded, and then tapped his badge to sync channels with Sheppard’s badge, thanks to the small mercy of that being one of the only things Pressman had left them with. Sheppard stepped outside the door and slid down to the floor.
A few minutes passed. “Lancaster here. I’ve primed the four explosive bolts manually and am ready to release the hull plates. I’m strapped in as well as I can be. The ship should initiate an emergency deceleration once the bolts release, but there’s no telling if that protocol has been tampered with.” The message went to all three of the Arcturus crew aboard. He switched back to the private channel. “I’m going to be fine.”
“When the bolts blow, exhale completely. A pressure suit like that won’t be able to adjust quickly for explosive decompression, so you need to meet it half way,” Sheppard insisted.
“Got it. Initiating sequence in three, two, one,” Lancaster replied. At first there was nothing, and then the synchronized “pop” of four charges going off simultaneously, followed by the roar of atmosphere rushing out of the cargo hold and then alert klaxons as the ship’s computer noticed the pressure loss. He felt a sudden deceleration, one that the ship’s basic inertial dampeners had trouble mitigating entirely, which mean that Lancaster’s hunch about the emergency protocols had been right.
Lancaster grunted on the other end of the comm channel. “Explosives ejected.”
“Stay with me, Michael. That yank on your safety line probably broke a few ribs.”
“Def… definitely,” Lancaster managed, in obvious pain. “It’s cold.”
“Just focus on the sound of my voice. Starfleet’s looking for us and we have to be close enough for them to see us now. Just hold on,” Sheppard pleaded.
“If they don’t make it—,” Lancaster started.
“If you finish that sentence, I’m divorcing you.”
Lancaster chuckled and then groaned. “Don’t make me laugh… Ribs…”
Sheppard put his hand up against the cargo bay door, which was now ice cold, which made his heart race. They didn’t have much time. “How close do you think we are to Epsilon Indi?” he asked. Math was always a good distraction for Lancaster.
“Based on rate of travel, we should be right outside the system.”
“They’ll be here soon, then.”
“What I was about to say earlier, Shep…”
“I really don’t want to hear it, Michael.”
“I was just going to say thank you. For us,” Lancaster said, before Sheppard could interrupt him.
At that point, Sheppard couldn’t hold back the tears. As he tried to think of a response, Evandrion slid down the ladder, wearing a pressure suit of his own. “Full computer control restored. Must have rebooted during the emergency. Please get behind the compartment divider, doctor,” he said, clipped and focused. He tossed a medical kit to Sheppard and then stepped past him.
Sheppard scrambled to his feet and moved to frames towards the interior of the ship. “Just a few seconds longer, Michael.”
“Do it, Ohala,” Evandrion said, prompting a forcefield to pop up between Evandrion and Sheppard, before the computer pulled all of the air out of the section of corridor between Evandrion and the cargo hatch. Sheppard watched as the Deltan made sure the pressure on both sides of the hatch was exactly equal, before opening it. He clipped his cable to the waist-high railing on the corridor bulkhead that Sheppard finally understood the purpose of, even after likely having been informed about it in some safety briefing before. Once he was secure, the security officer dove out into the cargo bay, using his momentum to swing along to where Lancaster was, out of Sheppard’s line of sight.
“What’s happening?” Lancaster asked.
“Evandrion’s coming for you. We got forcefield control back. Just hold on.”
“Got him,” Evandrion said, patching himself into the call. The seconds drug on until Evandrion emerged back into the corridor. The door slid closed behind him and he unclipped from the bulkhead. Sheppard could see blood at the corners of Lancaster’s mouth and he was clearly dazed. It was interminable waiting for the air to be restored to the compartment and for the forcefield to drop.
Sheppard pulled the tricorder out of the medical kit and scanned his partner. As predicted, oxygen levels, body temperature, and half a dozen other metrics were all low. He had four broken ribs and his lungs were both verging on collapsing, but he was alive.
“Get that suit off of him,” Sheppard ordered, loading a hypo with tri-ox. As soon as the suit was ripped open, he pressed the hypo to Lancaster’s neck, who tried to surge upright as he gasped, but Evandrion held him down. “Pain?”
“Lots,” Lancaster managed, also shivering.
Sheppard loaded another compound to help raise body temperature and injected it as well.
“Can’t give you anything for the pain, yet. We can’t risk you going unconscious until I can get you into a biobed,” Sheppard muttered. Evandrion looked at both of them.
“May I? I understand how… reserved Humans are about physical touch, but I can stop your pain, Captain,” the Deltan said. Sheppard didn’t know much about empathic abilities, so he looked on with skepticism when Lancaster nodded; he didn’t particularly like it when Evandrion put his hand on his partner’s abdomen, but the relief was visible after only a few seconds of contact.
“Wow,” Lancaster managed. “Can you sense my thoughts when you do this?”
Evandrion chuckled. “No. Not without your consent. It would be quite dangerous for you to experience the full range of my telepathic abilities without extensive mental conditioning, so we are quite practiced at doing only what is necessary to relieve pain,” he explained. He was so taciturn most of the time he’d been on the journey with them that Sheppard hadn’t had the opportunity to hear quite how sonorous his voice was. Unusually calming, for a security officer.
“Well, if you ever want a change in career… you’re definitely more effective than a shot of anesthizine,” Sheppard joked, still scanning him.
“Many of my kind have found great satisfaction in the medical field, yes. I decided that I would rather be in a career that is dedicated to preventing injuries in the first place, though. Besides, no one expects a Deltan to be a threat, which has often proven to be advantageous, Doctor,” Evandrion replied, with a grin.
Moments later, Lancaster’s commbadge chirped. “This is the Federation starship Atascadero. Captain Lancaster, do you read?”
“I’m here,” Lancaster managed.
“This is Dr. Luca Sheppard. Requesting emergency transport to your sickbay, Atascadero.”
Moments later, the three of them disappeared off of the Janice Rand for good in a swirl of energy.